Flame Tree is publishing bite-sized behind-the-scenes interviews with contributors to their Detective Thrillers anthology. The first part of the Q&A (on story inspiration) is up on their blog. As is the second Q&A about writing habits.
The Were-Traveler published my speculative mystery fiction, “Carnaval de la Coccinelle.” For a long time I’ve wanted to write a locked-box style of detective fiction, specifically a story where the central mystery revolves around a cipher.
Meanwhile, the backdrop is the same universe as “Water Bees,” an alternate history where the world is populated by men and a menagerie of bugs. There are no squirrels, whales, or seagulls, and man is theorized to be some evolved form of worm.
“Carnaval” also follows the same protagonist as “Water Bees,” the gruff police inspector Henri Moreau, and the setting is yet again Arles, France, at the turn-of-the-19th-century.
The Were-Traveler is a fiction eZine that publishes speculative fiction in themed anthologies (my piece was published in a whacky carnival-&-circus anthology called SuperFreak: Freakpunk #2). The magazine is run by the delightful author, publisher, and editor, Maria (M.X. or Reo) Kelly.
Flame Tree Publishing included my gothic horror story “Water Bees” in their Gothic Fantasy print anthology Detective Thrillers. The anthology of murder mysteries combines classic and contemporary writers, so my work is featured alongside G.K. Chesterton and Arthur Conan Doyle.
“Water Bees” follows an elderly police inspector named Henri Monreau as he hunts through Arles, France, in search of a missing entomologist. In case the city sounds familiar, it’s where Vincent Van Gogh painted some of his most famous works and then went mad. What makes this story unique, and a tad above the typical, is the world concept—Henri lives in an alternate universe where there are only bugs and humans. No squirrels, deer, fish, birds, just ants, beetles, spiders, and people, who are theorized to be an advanced form of worm.
Flame Tree Press is a London-based publishing company that’s generally interested in science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, but also dabbles in artisan notebooks, illustrated calendars, cards, jigsaw puzzles, and other gift-friendly forms. Founded in 1992, the press’s self-described purpose, to quote Pablo Picasso, is to wash “the dust of daily life off our souls.”
My wife and I went to see a medicolegal death investigator from the Douglas County Coroner’s Office discuss her profession—a presentation that was surprisingly lively. I thought I’d share a few interesting bits from the morbid monologue.
Naturally, the coroner was late a few minutes. Her Excuse? “Sorry, everyone, somebody died. No, really.”
According to her, a physician determines cause of death. But her job is to determine the manner of death. Both examine the body, but she also goes through the corpse’s effects, to the scene, to their homes and work places. Unlike the police, she doesn’t need a warrant.
The cause of death is something like this: stab wound to the heart. the initiation of the chain. The mechanism is what actually does the killing. So, stab wound? Mechanism: Exsanguination, i.e. blood-loss.
Cause: Pneumonia. Mechanism: Hypoxia, or lack of air, leading to organ failure.
As for manner? That’s the context of the killing.
She gave us the list of manners: homicide, suicide, natural, accident, undetermined. While the examiners will provide comprehensive data about the death, the manner ends up fitting into one of these five simple categories.
One of the coroner’s examples was an x-ray of a man with a nail in his skull. The point was near his ear, the dull hammerable bit in the center of his brain. Cause of death? A nail through the brain. But what was the manner?
After examining the wound, it’s entry, the equipment nearby, we determined the manner involved a nail gun. Judging by the angle, it was likely a suicide. He took a nail gun to his temple and blasted away.
We took cases (from out-of-state and with names removed) and had to determine manners of deaths. Mine was a guy who tried to prove a gun wasn’t loaded by putting it to his forehead and pulling the trigger. She called it a stupidicide but it was officially an accident.
We also looked at photos of grisly ends and did the same. There was a man who was struck by deer antlers. You could tell from the prong-pattern across his chest, the lacerations on his sides. There was someone who fell from a chair while fixing a lightbulb. Well, there was the chair, there was the lightbulb. We also looked at scenes without bodies and determined the cause of death. An alcoholic’s bed (the bottles, the trash basket, the sheets). A suicide by driving into a near-stationary bus (no skid marks).
One of my favorite anecdotes was about a skull she found. The examiner being a generalist, she passed on the item to an anthropologist, who determined the age and time period of the skull. She sent isotopes (water) to a lab and DNA to another lab. A femur was discovered with bite marks; this led her to find bone fragments in old bear scat. Within two weeks, they knew everything about this teenage girl, including how she was murdered.
The entire presentation was highly disturbing. I was appalled. My wife was enthralled. I hope she doesn’t get any ideas.
It was the kind of day that made you want to lie around and wait for a belly rub. A breeze was slinking about the neighborhood, and the welcoming scent of McAlister’s Pet Friendly Kitty Chow was wafting through the window. But I had to be on my paws. Trouble could come scratching my door at any minute.
So I sat at my desk, playing with the blinds, waiting for my nine lives to run out. On my desk were a few toy mice and a ball of yarn I’d bought at a flea market to relieve stress. Whatever effect the yarn was supposed to have was being negated by the fleas. I used to have a pot of catnip, too, but I gave that stuff up.
That’s when she sauntered in. A domestic long-hair, although tame is the last word I’d use. She was a tall bowl of milk, white and fluffy with cream on her shoulders like she was wearing a second fur coat. Soft blue eyes. The type of dame you wish hadn’t been declawed.
“You stalking anybody?” she asked.
“No,” I purred. “You got something for me, or are you just looking for the litter box?”
“I might have something,” she said, cool as a calico. “See, there’s this fancy cat I’ve been nuzzling. And he’s gone missing.”
“You check the pound? Maybe he rubbed someone the wrong way?”
“Mittens always keeps his address on his collar. See, he’s forgetful sometimes. I’m afraid something’s happened to him, Sam.” Her whiskers twitched pathetically and I was string in her paws. She went on to describe her plaything. A Himalayan long-hair, blue-gray, googly eyes. Not the sharpest claw on the paw. More like the type who’d run out of an open door and drown in the pool.
“You armed?” she asked. “This might get fuzzy.”
I opened a drawer and pulled out my Ktaxon 5mm laser pointer.
“So you’ll do it?” she said luxuriously. “I should warn you, I can only pay in Purina.”
“Salmon?” I said. “Or Chicken and Liver?”
She looked sheepish: “Chicken Gravy.”
“Hmm.” I thought about it. To be honest, I would have hissed my mother out a window for a spoonful of Meow Mix. “All right, I’ll be your puss-in-boots.”
She rubbed against me in appreciation. “Thank you, Sam,” she said. “Now, please, find my Mittens.”
I hadn’t thought about the letter in years. It wasn’t until I was at the MoMA a few days ago that I saw a name that reminded me. Mallick Clem. It was an inscription on the wall. Mallick. Clem. The installation itself had not been substantial. Mallick had starved a cat to death in a bucket painted like a can of tomato soup. The Warhol reference I got, but the poor cat? I guess I just don’t understand modern art.
The name Clem, though, rattled awhile in my synaptic nerves. Then it came back to me. That curious incident with the letter. Clem! That had been the addressee. One Raymond Clem.
From the Santa Barbara Hounds Case Files
Case File #86 #87
See previous cases here.
Agents Involved: Wilder, Percipheles
Wilder, while working as a custodian at Does Pueblos HS, was contacted by several teachers about a recurring incident in the Social Studies faculty restroom. The situation was reported as a daily “pee puddle” causing discomfort to female staff. One eye witness described the event as “some guy keeps spraying everywhere except the bowl.” Wilder took the case. HOUNDS!
From The Santa Barbara Hounds Case Files
Case File #1 #86
Agents Involved: Wilder, Percipheles and Reeves.
Wilder found a key #1203-16 on the grass near Storke Tower. On its head was printed University of California Santa Barbara: Duplication Prohibited. Attached to the keychain was a bottle opener with the word Bathroom taped on the side. Wilder took the keychain off and attached it to his own set of keys. After consulting Reeves and Percipheles about Case #86, he then sleuthed campus trying the key on different doorways, to no avail. HOUNDS!
During an interview with the campus newspaper The Bottomline, Wilder overheard mention that the key to The Bottomline’s handicapped restrooms was missing! He said he didn’t know anything about it. HOUNDS!
Wilder and Percipheles checked The Bottomline’s handicapped bathrooms. The key worked! After relieving themselves, they went back to The Studio and closed the case. They were going to celebrate with victory wine, but a fly had gotten into their bottle of Barefoot Sauvignon Blanc.
“What a buzz kill,” quipped Percipheles quite successfully. Reeves drank some anyway. They decided not to return the key as Wilder wanted to keep the bottle opener.